Iris Sutherland Smith obituary

Other lives: Secondary school teacher who single-handedly got her six children to university

My mother, Iris Sutherland Smith, who has died aged 100, was a secondary school teacher who, despite being left destitute when her husband left the family, managed to ensure her six children went to university.

Born in Glasgow, to Christine (nee Anderson) and James Sutherland, a major in the Gordon Highlanders, Iris grew up wherever her father was posted: Aldershot, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and, finally, in Aberdeen, where he became manager of the regimental officers’ club until 1950.

She matriculated at the Sacred Heart school and could have gone on to university had not the war intervened. During the second world war she worked as a secretary in the Ministry of Defence, being personal secretary to the popular novelist Dennis Wheatley, as well as undertaking duties in the intelligence services. In his autobiography Wheatley describes her as “a bright, vivacious redhead”. After the war she was posted to Egypt, where she continued her intelligence duties until she met and, in 1947, married Michael Smith, a captain in the Royal Dragoons, with whom she had six children.

He left the family in 1965. Iris learned to negotiate the byzantine regulations of the then national assistance service, in order to clothe and feed her children. She was determined that they should all go to university.

In 1968 Iris resumed her education and achieved a BEd specialising in teaching English in secondary schools. She took up a post at Highsted school in Sittingbourne, Kent, where she remained until retirement as head of English.

In 1985 Iris relocated to Swaffham in Norfolk, and lived an active life in the community – notably, running the town’s annual arts festival into the 1990s. She brought a number of distinguished poets to read in the town including Fleur Adcock, Edwin Brock, Alan Brownjohn, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Michael Donaghy, Gavin Ewart, Peter Porter, Matthew Sweeney and Anthony Thwaite. They often stayed at her home and were entertained with her wonderful cooking.

All her children won places at university and went on to have successful careers. Four of her grandchildren gained first-class honours.

Iris is survived by her children, Piers, Sarah, Dorcas, Fiona, Rebecca and me, eight grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

James Sutherland-Smith

The GuardianTramp

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